Zapotec Homes and Gardens

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Today, we got our own place to stay.  We are renting a property in Margarita’s neighborhood [Barriu Lattsi’].  We had been staying with her aunt and uncle, who are just two houses up and across the street from the new place.  It will be nice to have a place to ourselves, but since we haven’t figured out a good solution for the Internet yet, it may just be a temporary move, or something we end up using only on visits to Macuil.

There are no typical floorplans for housing in Macuil.  As Nacho pointed out to me when we were visiting his nephew who was working on his own new house, there are no codes, building inspectors, or restrictions of any kind.  You can build however you like, but at your own risk.  Most people adapt their housing to fit the available space (oftentimes, children are building on their parents’ property) and do the work piecemeal, adding a room here, a building there.  This leads to a frequent phenomenon I see which is windows that open onto other rooms or are otherwise in less than ideal locations.

While there is not uniformity—no housing developments here—there are certain common themes.  As seems to be common throughout Mexico, the entire property is often blocked by buildings and/or surrounded by a fence.  Usually, there are several distinct buildings [yú’ù] on the property, possibly representing different generations of a family, but frequently just dedicated to different functions (eating, sleeping, showering, etc.).  There tend not to be interior rooms.  Most buildings and rooms (even those with a common wall) open directly to the outside.  This is changing with newer builders often opting for having multiple rooms and interior doors, but it is not yet the predominant pattern.  Floors and walls tend to be cement or adobe or brick, which could be trouble in case of earthquakes, which are not totally unknown in this region.  Thankfully at least, most buildings tend to be low, only one story or two maybe, and roofs are lighter, typically made with wooden beams supporting lamina (tin sheets).  These are unfortunately noisy when it rains.  One advantage to the house we are staying in is that instead of tin sheets it has what Margarita called lamina asbesto (which sounds a little worrisome, but for different reasons).  They are thicker and not metallic, so they don’t magnify the pounding of the rain, but instead dampen it.

Most properties have a kitchen, bedroom (or bedrooms as needed), an all-purpose room and a bathroom area.  (Historically the bedroom and all-purpose room would have been combined into a [yú’ù xeeni] ‘big room’.)  Kitchens are the most likely to be separate structures since they are built to have open fires.  Usually the fire is just built on a raised platform that is open on the sides.  There is a raised tin roof above the fire to let the smoke out.  Since the smoke isn’t otherwise contained, the rafters, wall by the fire, and other parts tend to become blackened and smoke-cured over time.

The kitchen [cocina] is the only room that is heated, which is fine if you are going out to work in the field all day or you are working hard at housework.  You can sit by the fire while you eat and then hide under blankets at night, when it does get a little chilly, especially in the wintertime.  I am worried though about what happens if your job is to sit in front of a computer, not working up a sweat.  Right now the days are warm, but later in the year, I’m not sure.  Or what if I want to work after sunset when it can get cold?  Maybe I will be thankful that my laptop puts out a lot of heat.

One thing I do like about housing here is that the toilet and shower are usually housed in separate compartments, often with their own individual doors.  I think that is a great idea and something I would adopt in the US if I ever had the chance to design my own house.  I have seen a few houses here try to adopt the American model of having a bathroom with the shower and toilet in the same room, but it doesn’t seem to work out well since there is no tub for the shower or walls to keep the water out.  Separate is a better a way to go.

The one room I don’t fully understand is what I am calling the all-purpose room.  It is usually a large room which as far as I can tell doesn’t get much day-to-day use.  Margarita tells me that my perception may be a little skewed, since we have mostly stayed with older couples as they are likely to have room for us, and also because with emigration Macuil’s population is aging.  These rooms may have seen more use back when there were still children living at home and when people had larger families.  Today though these rooms don’t seem like places where people typically go and hang out.  Casual visitors are usually invited to the kitchen.  Altars are typically maintained in the all-purpose room and that seems to be their current daily function.  Otherwise, the rooms seem kind of like storage (but only along the walls), or maybe have some beds for guests.  And if someone hosts a posada this would be the room that would be used.  It would also be used I suppose for wakes and novenarios.  So, now they seem to be largely ceremonial spaces with a few practical encroachments.

The place we will be staying at is newer built—most of the dates inscribed in the concrete are from the late 80’s, and it is a little different from more traditional properties.  Everything is contained in one building on the property, though again, most rooms open to the outside rather than having interior rooms.  It is a two-story building, although we’ll mostly be using the upstairs.  It contains one large room which serves as a bedroom and another room which serves as the kitchen.  Both open out onto a shared balcony.

The kitchen is quite different from what I am used to seeing here.  There isn’t just an open area for a fire.  Instead, it looks like there is an enclosed space for building a fire with a PVC pipe chimney, but no one we’ve consulted so far about it is sure about how to use it.  And I don’t know if the fire would be solely for heating—the space for building the fire is too small to cook in—or if you might be able to cook on the platform above the fire.  When the owners visit we can ask them—we’ve gotten the keys from one of their parents in the meantime.

An exterior staircase leads down from the balcony.  I’m guessing an all-purpose room is down there on the first floor, but it is currently filled up as storage by the owners.  At the back of the house on the first floor is the bathroom, containing a sink, shower, and toilet, each in their own separate stalls.  The owners had walled off an interior bathroom connected to the bedroom but that was as far as they had gotten, so right now if nature calls at night it means a trudge outside and downstairs.  (Or there is the chamber pot solution, which are still used here.)

Overall, I’m looking forward to a place to ourselves.



  1. Thank You for sharing your great adventures in Macuiltianguis which is my hometown. I am currently living in the State of NJ and its of a great joy reading about macuil,its people and traditions.
    You are doing a great job.

    Please post more pictures.

    Thank You

  2. […] Market Blog « Chinantec Country Zapotec Homes and Gardens » Thursday, August 21, 2008 Besides the day being filled with cleaning and getting the […]

  3. […] something I like about the new place we are staying is that there are only about three places I can hit my head:  the doorway going […]

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